One day after Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum's Mafaaz took the inaugural Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes at Kempton Park in England, American trainers were more or less resigned to the idea that the 3-year-old colt's resulting guaranteed entry in the May 2 Kentucky Derby would equal one less chance at 20 hotly-contested starting stalls on the first Saturday in May. But John Ward Jr., who won the 2001 Derby with Monarchos, had other things to say.
The inaugural "win-and-you're-in"-style contest -- taken March 18 by the John Gosden-trained Mafaaz in a pedestrian 1:55.17 over Polytrack -- seems to be serving its' purpose for Churchill Downs officials, who birthed the idea and put up $75,185 of the race's $115,000 purse in attempts to increase the Derby's popularity among European punters. The track is also dangling an additional $100,000 bonus should Mafazz win the Derby (a feat never before accomplished by a European runner). Mafazz is the first horse in history to ever be given automatic entry to the Derby, where the system generally gives preference to starters based on their graded earnings.
But Ward called the Challenge Stakes "a cheap publicity stunt," likening its' concept to the idea of replacing one of the final four in the NCAA tournament with "the team that has the hottest homecoming queen."
"Having won the Derby and knowing what a feat it is, knowing all the hoops you have to jump through just to get a horse into the field, I don't agree with the premise of allowing somebody come in the back door without going through all the same obstacles that the people who participate in this country have to face," he remarked. "I've been against it since the beginning."
Granted, the native Kentuckian could also be left out of the Derby because of Mafazz's running. His Beethoven, winner of Churchill Downs' Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes as a 2-year-old last November, ranks 20th on the graded earnings list after running third in the Feb. 28 Fountain of Youth Stakes. The Sky Mesa colt will need a solid effort in the March 28 Florida Derby to punch his ticket to the Derby.
"Here's my case in point with Beethoven," Ward said. "He won Churchill's premiere 2-year-old race last year but now he has a shot of being preempted. I understand there are horses that aren't going to (make it into the Derby field), but this is a quality race for a reason and the horse that gets an automatic entry hasn't faced the same challenges as the rest of the horses."
Turf writer Jay Privman voiced the question everyone has been asking in his March 18 column, Derby Expands Global Presence: "Is it fair to offer the winner of an ungraded European race, run on a right-handed course, and worth just 80,000 British pounds, a spot in America's premier race at the expense of a horse who tried to amass the requisite graded-stakes earnings?"
"It's got you talking, it's got me talking, it's doing what it's supposed to do," said Ken McPeek, whose Theregoesjojo sits 27th on the graded earnings list and will hope to improve his placing with a run in the Florida Derby as well. "I don't have any problem with innovation."
"I think it might take a couple years for people to appreciate it around the world," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains extensively for Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Stable, "but the focal point in American racing is always the Kentucky Derby -- it's our Super Bowl -- and I think it helps to bring the world closer by having this race; all the Europeans will know the trainer and the jockey, so for the bettors, they'll have a greater interest in the Derby."
McLaughlin, whose Charitable Man ranks 17th on the current earnings list and is pointing for a start in the April 11 Blue Grass Stakes, said he could even imagine American horses shipping to England for a chance at the race with the hopes of making it into the Derby field, although that seems to be a concept far from trainers' minds at the present time.
"I do think it's a positive, not a negative," McLaughlin said. "But I sure don't want to be training the 21st horse and not get into the Derby."
Surprisingly, key traditionalists like Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito (who took the Derby in 1991 with Strike the Gold and in 1994 with Go For Gin) applaud the concept.
"I think it's a great idea because England has such a great tradition with horse racing," Zito said. "I love the idea of getting the Kentucky Derby into a much more international community. You know, England has been responsible for a lot of our horses. It's all good and I think the March 18 will be ideal if the winner decides to come over here for the race. If the race gets built up like I think it will, I don't think it would be out of the realm for more to try to get into the race this way."
But McPeek offered his benediction with one condition, pinpointing Churchill's $150,00 Crown Royal Turf Stakes, 1 1/8-miles on the grass on Derby Day, five weeks before the Epsom Derby, as a prime chance for the Europeans to return a favor with an automatic berth rewarded to the victor.
"They need to have a grass race in the United States that automatically qualifies you to a spot in their gate," he said. "If we're going to open up our premiere race to them, let's get a little reciprocity."